History: RFDS new museum

CW Staff; — 11 April 2009

The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS), SE section, has reopened a museum at a brand new visitor centre at its Broken Hill base in NSW. CW chats to Dr Judith McKay, the museum curator and historian who prepared the text for the display. The 20-panel installation reveals the rich history of the service, which was founded in 1928 by the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) at the instigation of its Superintendent John Flynn.

“Tom Hewitt (designer of the displays) showed me the previous panels (from old museum), which I thought were good, but we agreed that we would make the new panels more specific to the Broken Hill base while relating them to the wider story of the flying doctor service,” says Judith.

The Broken Hill base, the service’s fourth, was opened on 15 June 1937. Judith says that when it was launched it had only two staff members who received calls from far west NSW, to southwest QLD and northern SA.

“I really wanted to pay tribute to those who served the Broken Hill base over the years; the doctors, nurses, the pilots, mechanics, the radio operators...” says Judith, “I was (also) keen for the display to include a timeline of key achievements of the RFDS over the years and of advances in outback communications,” says Judith.

In one panel, Judith explains how in 1926 John Flynn engaged radio engineer Alfred Traeger to improve outback communications . As a result, the pedal radio was invented.

“John Flynn was a visionary; he wanted to minister to people’s spiritual needs, but understood that they needed practical help too. He dreamt of having flying doctors, but realised that the doctors could not be effective without a fast and reliable communication system

“Inland communication (prior to the pedal radio) was via the telegraph, which did not reach beyond major centres.”


“When creating a museum display, the worst thing you can do is to write a book on a wall: no-one wants to read a book on the wall. The display needs to be presented concisely and attractively”, says Judith.

Fortunately, the museum was able to tap into an extensive photographic collection and original equipment, like Traeger’s pedal radio.

“We wanted to cover the various aspects of the flying doctor service, when it was established and the services it offers, including the communications network and the School of the Air.”

One of Judith’s favourite panels Intrepid Women describes the work of the first travelling nursing sisters, who during the 1920s travelled by road, station to station (often by themselves) to administer basic medical care to the people of “Tragedy corner”, the area where the borders of NSW, SA and Queensland intersect..

“You can’t even imagine how difficult it was for those women.”

Another panel talks about Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Broken Hill base during her tour of Australia in 1955.

“It was the only base that the Queen visited,” says Judith. “Her Majesty spoke over the radio network, and later granted the royal prefix to the flying doctor service, in recognition of its service to the outback.” Risky and Remarkable, discusses the service’s early efforts in aviation, and the challenges pilots faced flying into make-shift “airstrips”, and another panel discusses the implementation of the outback medical chests.

“If someone has a particular pain, a medical practitioner can prescribe the patient to go to the chest and take medicine number 12: it’s like an outback pharmacy – that was instituted in 1942.”


Judith’s interest in the flying doctors is fitting, given her family’s own involvement with the AIM. Her uncle, Reverend Fred McKay, worked with John Flynn as a patrol padre, and later succeeded him as the Superintendent of the AIM.

“My father (Reverend Les McKay) also travelled the outback as an AIM patrol padre in western Qld,” says Judith. As a historian I have researched original records of the AIM, which has made me even more conscious of the achievements of John Flynn and those pioneers of the flying doctor service. I am just overawed by their vision and courage”.

The RFDS is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 4pm. Profits and donations help fund the purchase of new aircraft, equipment and supplies. Donations can be made by calling 1300 669 569 or by visiting www.flyingdoctors.org.au

· Dr Judith McKay is a museum curator and historian, until recently on the staff of the Queensland Museum. She began her museum career at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, which is how she met Tom Hewitt, designer of the Broken Hill displays. Judith is curator of a series of displays at John Flynn Place, Cloncurry (2000, 2007), and enjoys maintaining her family connections with the Inland.


Royal Flying Doctor Service RFDS museum travel history Broken Hill outback Australian Inland Mission Dr John Flynn